Nearly 100,000 travelers had their lives disrupted yesterday when American Airlines canceled 900 flights for belated safety checks on its MD-80 jets. American and other carriers are expected to cancel hundreds more flights as federal officials pursue extended safety inspections. The damage to airlines' bottom lines and reputations from the inspection scandal has been substantial - an expensive lesson in the costs of regulatory lapses that demands closer congressional oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration and tougher penalties for airlines that fail to comply with inspection and repair directives.
In recent years, the FAA trusted airlines to voluntarily report safety problems and to comply with directives requiring inspections and changes to jet wiring and equipment. But it is clear that the airlines have failed to follow that mandate and FAA officials too often have overlooked the carriers' shortcomings.
For airlines, hard pressed by soaring fuel costs and other economic pressures, the temptation to minimize the costs of aircraft maintenance is obvious. Many airlines now send their jets to maintenance centers abroad to trim expenses.
Airline executives note that there is no evidence that neglected safety inspections have led to an increase in serious accidents. But that attitude compromises an important margin of safety, other experts note. As their safety inspection shortcomings are revealed, the airlines lose a large measure of respect and trust from customers already battered by frequent flight delays, a growing mountain of lost luggage and indifferent service.
Any business executive will tell you, this is no way to run an airline or a regulatory agency.